Michael Kazin

Three-Dimensional Democracy

George_Caleb_Bingham_-_Stump_Speaking

“Stump Speaking,” oil on canvas, by George Caleb Bingham, 1853-54. (Credit: St. Louis Art Museum)

“. . . faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Hebrews 11.1 (Holy Bible NRSV)

Surely, faith in democracy is a steadfast hope for a condition of self-rule that so far remains unrealized—a belief in the unseen.   What passes for democracy these days is more akin to oligarchy than self-rule, with democracy reduced to the conceit of ritualized voting.

The political imagination, as Sheldon Wolin holds, is a function of vision, of “seeing” a phenomenon in political space from a particular angle or perspective. Such vision can be descriptive or, more to the point, imaginative. As an act of imagination, it expresses fundamental values and seeks to transcend history. It is a multidimensional image that projects “the political order into a time that is yet to be”—an aesthetic vision of “political society in its corrected fullness, not as it is but as it might be.”[i]

An image of the people engaged in self-rule is the essence of the democratic faith. Two of its three dimensions, as I indicated in “Democracy with Property,” are the twin populist principles of increased political decentralization and adequate distribution of personal wealth, enough to keep elites from dominating the citizenry.   (more…)

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Populism and the Democratic Imagination

"The Demagogue," oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“The Demagogue,” oil on canvas, by José Clemente Orozco, 1946. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

“Populism is the canary in the coal mine of American representative democracy.”

Robert Westbrook, “Populist Fever”[i]

John Lukacs, in his book on Democracy and Populism, ominously observes that Hitler was a populist and in some ways a democrat.[ii] Representative democracy, grounded in the political principles of liberalism, is one thing. Raw democracy is another. As Lukacs puts the matter: “Majority rule is tempered by the legal assurance of the rights of minorities, and of individual men and women. And when this temperance is weak, or unenforced, or unpopular, then democracy is nothing more (or else) than populism” (p. 5).

The populist “fever” is a political “fury,” an “outburst,” in Robert Westbrook’s words. George Packer, writing in the New Yorker, remarks on “the volatile nature of populism.” It is a rhetoric, he says, that can “ignite reform or reaction, idealism or scapegoating . . . . It speaks of a battle of good against evil, demanding simple answers to difficult problems.” Populism can take a “conspiratorial and apocalyptic bent,” Packer observes. It is “suspicious of the normal bargaining and compromise that constitute democratic governance.” The populist politician—whether Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump—presumes to “articulate what ordinary people feel.”

By this reckoning, Trump’s rhetorical volatility is the mark of his populist appeal, his demagoguery. (more…)